A Categorically Mixed Bag

At Fringe, a raunchy cannibal satiates; a gay roundelay is played out

Though it’s generally wise to curb expectations at the rough-and-tumble New York Fringe Festival, some shows breed so much pre-opening buzz you can’t help but hope to be wowed. If you’re lucky, these hopes are gloriously fulfilled.

With a raft of established names attached to it, plus a clever premise and title, “Silence! The Musical” was touted as the hottest ticket at this year’s FringeNYC. I’m happy to report that this perverse parody of “Silence of the Lambs” actually exceeded my expectations.

Crisply directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (“Altar Boyz,” “Bat Boy: The Musical”), this full-on musical, complete with live band, manages to serve up all the top-notch talent of Broadway, while preserving the passionate, subversive charms we expect from FringeNYC.

The wacky thriller, about a rookie female FBI agent who cracks a case involving serial murders of heavy-set women, is narrated by a nimble Greek Chorus of singing and dancing lambs. These not-so-silent lambs do double duty as set changers and keep the action churning in this 125-minute, intermission-less romp.

With her deadpan delivery, limber dance moves, and over-the-top Southern accent, Jenn Harris (“Modern Orthodox”) delights as the overly intrepid FBI agent Clarice Starling. Paul Kandel (“Shockheaded Peter”) actually out-creeps Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal-the-Cannibal Lecter, underplaying his role with alternately bone-chilling and bone-tickling perfection. Lisa Howard (currently starring in “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) captivates as the feisty, plump victim.

Comedian Jeff Hiller, with the juiciest lines and rubbery goon-face, nearly steals the show as Sgt. Pembry and other wacko supporting roles. Rounding out the ensemble are Stephen Bienskie, Harry Bouvy, Howard Kaye, and Deidre Goodwin. There’s not a weak performance in the bunch.

Despite such heady talent, the real star of the show is the zippy, so-wrong-it’s-right score, concocted by fledgling composers Jon and Al Kaplan, who clearly have watched too many “South Park” episodes. Their tunes, which revel in lewdly titillating word play, have enjoyed a cult following among the cyberspace download circuit. And yes, there’s one catchy anthem you’ll be humming as you leave the theater—“If I could smell her…”. But don’t sing the lyrics aloud or you’ll get nasty stares.

The equally kooky book, which adroitly distills the well-known story and imbues a human dimension to the corny characters, is by Hunter Bell, also a relative novice in the theater.

This superbly staged parody is brimming with deliciously tasteless low-tech touches, such as an inmate spewing spooge from what we pray is a concealed water bottle, a body bag that looks suspiciously like an ordinary garment bag, and a ghost-like fog that’s evoked by clapping two chalkboard erasers together. And the faux slow-motion effect during the show’s climax, not exactly an original gag, works brilliantly, here.

The spare, inventive set—mostly just movable scrims made up of stitched-together clothes painted charcoal gray, echoing the serial killer’s predilection for frocks made of human skin—is designed by Scott Pask, who won the 2005 Tony Award for his work on “The Pillowman.”

It’s not just Hollywood that’s being lampooned here. Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Bob Fosse, and other Broadway greats are also skewered—with a wink and a grin, naturally. Overweight people, detectives, and homosexuals are not spared, either.

Though the play, which sold out all of its performances, will have to temper its language—some of which is so foul I didn’t even press to print it in this newspaper [ed. note: bring it on!]—it certainly has a shot at a “Uninetown”-like transfer to Off-Broadway and beyond.

Less successful is the much ballyhooed erotic comedy, “seduction,” which traces a daisy chain of sexual liaisons among 10 distinct characters—handyman, student, teacher, businessman, teenager, writer, actor, and so on—and comes full circle at the end.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s yet another take on Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” which was originally penned in 1898 and was so racy it wasn’t performed until 1920—when it was promptly shut down as a crime against morality.

Since then, scads of film and stage incarnations have surfaced, most notably David Hare’s play, “The Blue Room,” staring a very naked Nicole Kidman, and “Hello Again,” a bubbly musical by Michael John LaChiusa. Then there was that 2002 clunker of a film, “Love in the Time of Money,” starring Steve Buscemi.

In an age where sex stories have saturated nearly every corner of the media, has this conceit finally run its course?

Playwright Jack Heifner, best known for the long-running Off-Broadway hit, “Vanities,” certainly doesn’t think so. His spin with “seduction,” which recently excited audiences in London, is that all the characters are male, and the sex acts, left to the imagination in other “La Ronde” versions, are depicted, albeit briefly.

However, the all-male take actually works against it. I know I’m generalizing here, but for me, the play’s essential message, “though we’re different on the outside, we’re all horndogs at heart” is underwhelming with gay guys. Most of the target audience has surely seen this turf explored many times before, if not having lived it themselves.

The thrills of recognizing yourself onstage, trying to bag that hottie or being rushed out the door without being offered a shower, are limited, as are the tingles of seeing bare asses and jiggly male members.

Of course, the performance I saw was sold out; amazing how the warning “contains male nudity” can pack a theater.

The major problem in the production is that the play’s structure allows no room for a compelling story arc. With all those characters coming and going, and going and coming, it’s hard to invest any real emotional attachment. Sitting through “seduction” is almost like watching a top-notch porn video while fast forwarding through all the sex scenes.

Other area rich with dramatic possibilities—such as negotiating safe sex or facing consequences after not negotiating safe sex—are ignored altogether. Though the play is “set in the modern-day,” condoms do not exist, nor does the specter of sexually transmitted diseases of any kind.

That’s not to say director Peter Bull and the spunky cast, imported intact from Britain, doesn’t work overtime to bring these unlikely pairings to life. And it’s amusing to see how the able cast members tackle their dual roles. Phil Price, as the Rent Boy and the Teenager, is especially fine, as is Gareth Watkins as the Sailor and the Professor.

Perhaps it’s finally time to break the extended chain of remakes of the century-old “La Ronde,” and hang it up for good.

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